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Vermont's Community Forests Do More Than Boost The Economy; Case Study Crunches Numbers

A person in silhouette runs against a cloudy sky, wearing a cross-country runner's jersey.
Courtesy, Trust for Public Land/ Brian Mohr / Ember Photography/Brian Mohr / Ember Photography
Catamount Outdoor Center in the Williston Community Forest is one plot of public land included in a new case study, which looks at the monetary and non-monetary benefits of town forests.

A recent case study conducted the the National Forest Service and The Trust for Public Land found that town forests carry economic benefits that flow directly back to communities.

When you're going for a hike up a trail in your community forest, it may not be top of mind that your visit is actually generating money.

A recent case study conducted the the National Forest Service and The Trust for Public Land found these forests carry economic benefits that flow directly back to communities.

The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the US Forest Service and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, conducted the study, titled, "Community Forests: A path to prosperity and connection to prosperity and connection."

The goal was to better understand the range of economic benefits provided by the country's community forests.

Community forests play an important role, as places for recreation, for extracting timber products, or preserving Indigenous land, culture and plant life. During the pandemic, community forests even provided outdoor classrooms.

The study, which wrapped up this spring, included two community forests in Vermont.

Researchers studied the Barre Town Forest and Catamount Forest in Williston, to assess their monetary and non-monetary value.

Shelby Semmes is the State Director for New Hampshire and Vermont with the Trust for Public Land. She recently spoke with VPR's Mary Engisch about some of the case-study's findings. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

"I like to think of them as public land at its most intimate level."
Shelby Semmes, State Director for New Hampshire and Vermont with the Trust for Public Land

Mary Engisch: Shelby, welcome. First, can you define community forest?

Shelby Semmes: We at the Trust for Public Land, and a lot of practitioners in this arena, have narrowed in on four qualities that define "community forest." Those qualities are that they are permanently conserved, that the benefits from community forest flow at a very bare minimum to local communities. The third pillar is that they are either locally owned, or locally stewarded. And then, that community participation and management is really the defining feature.

I like to think of them as public land at its most intimate level.

And there is a federally funded program that provides grants to communities, so that they can establish new community forests on previously privately-held land. Shelby, can you talk more about the study and its data, being able to really hone in on the dollar amounts that are generated, and that flow back into communities?

The approach we took in this report was to to cast a wide net across the entire country. [We looked] at 17 different case studies that actually provide data, and have a certain longevity to the management of that community ... so that we could crunch some numbers and really tease out what the different stories of local community benefit are — many of which are economic.

So here in Vermont, we have two case studies included, one of which is the Barre Town Forest, in Barre Town, Vt., which is home to a significant portion of the Millstone Trails Network and formerly some of the quarry space owned by Rock of Ages Corporation.

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And another is the Catamount Community Forest, home to the Catamount Outdoor Family Center.

So it's really a kind of diversity of the different communities and the properties themselves that we wanted to showcase. But also really, where possible, [to compute] some of the quantifiable economic benefits, and document some of the kind of qualitative community benefits, like outdoor education, spiritual connection.

And this study was conducted during the pandemic. I don't think that was the plan, but were there surprising findings, in terms of people using the forests, or people using the forests for completely different things?

This was a really interesting time to undertake the report.

And we're really hopeful that it increases the evidence ... so that elected leaders, congressional leadership and even just members of local communities that are trying to consider what to do with a property that might be at risk of converting from undeveloped forest land, that's home to a very beloved informal trail system, might look at a community forest model and say, "I think that might work for us."

The kind of use-dynamics, especially during COVID-19, and the outdoor education kind of programming that community forests can offer and augment — I think we saw this really bear out during the last year and a half.

We were able to document through this report that the Millstone Trails Association had a 26% increase in their membership enrollment over the pandemic period.

Catamount Community Forest — I'll also mention that the forest provided a lot of opportunities for K-12 programming. There are specifically half-day nature camps and outdoor after-school programs designed in large [part] to compliment remote learning and home-schooling kind of needs in the local community.

We know in Vermont that over 40% of K-12 schools in the state actually don't have off-campus, walkable nature nearby.

And so community forests could provide a really meaningful path to satisfying that kind of nature gap around an anchor institution that I think that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an awareness of.

And of what power that could present both for students and families, just getting out to kind of nearby nature, [with] close to home access to the outdoors.

I understand this study also takes into account Indigenous and sovereign lands. Can you talk more about that?

There is actually a community forest held and managed on behalf of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki, that principally the Vermont Land Trust was involved in establishing.

It's a case study that wasn't featured in this report, in part because it didn't actually use this federal funding.

I think one of the challenges in Vermont is that we don't have any federally recognized tribes. This national funding source is actually a really powerful tool for tribal land acquisition, stewardship.

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But for tribes that aren't quote-unquote "federally recognized," it becomes a little more challenging. And it's something that I think a lot of folks working in this space would like to find solutions for, so there can be more direct community forest resource investment in Abenaki lands and those of other non-federally recognized tribes around the country, for land justice and land return, knowing that all of this land in question is Indigenous.

Some of us who work on the Trust for Public Land, on the policy front, especially related to the community forest program, are trying to think of ways to further support the flexibility of this program to support direct land return.

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